Law and Order on the Trail

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Tonight’s debate on domestic policy will give the presidential candidates an opportunity to address a major domestic issue that hasn’t received much attention from either campaign: Our country’s skyrocketing incarceration rate and the sentencing policies, particularly for nonviolent offenders, that have contributed to it.

We’ve heard surprisingly little on this issue, considering Obama’s legislative work on death penalty reform and Biden’s nearly three decades of tough-on-crime cred (he created the job of “drug czar” during the Reagan administration and wrote the legislation imposing mandatory minimum sentences for possession of crack cocaine, a law he finally moved to overturn earlier this year). McCain’s website indicates he supports more enforcement and stricter sentencing, but the details are vague.

The economy will likely trump all other domestic policy items tonight, but that’s no excuse to ignore criminal justice in light of the quasi-recession. Cash-strapped states started rethinking their incarceration policies even before credit dried up. Now that they can’t even get the money they need for regular municipal operations, maybe it’s time to rethink them again.

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